If you notice the map of Darjeeling, it is essentially one road that dominates it. While walking through the town, I realised that the map is a farce! The numerous lanes and steep steps that connect one another is a mayhem. Consistently losing my way through them on my first day here, I was always hoping that ‘this flight of stairs must be right.’ Only to be gasping in disappointment.
Darjeeling served as my base camp before I headed out for the Sandakphu trek in December 2014. While I was in no doubt I’d enjoy this scenic hill station in North Bengal, I hadn’t researched on the place at all. Honestly, I tend to feel restricted with too much of information. And as an excuse, I told myself that this destination was only meant to be a base camp.
Luckily, I completed the trek two days before the stipulated period and invested that time in the meandering lanes of this town, getting lost time and again.
What I did
I walked, tirelessly and curiously. An hour after sunrise, I left my room and walked onwards on Mall Road (Nehru Road), Dr. Zakir Hussain Road, HD Lama Road, Bhutia Busty Road, Robertson Road, further down to JP Sharma Road, through the chaotic Hill Cart Road and further beyond Lebong Cart Road, amongst other unknown turns.
Even though this wasn’t completed on a single circuit, it began with witnessing the Kanchenjunga at sunrise (once again) from Mall Road and aimlessly walking for the next few hours. Mall Road is bustling with souvenir shops and numerous hotels. It is not particularly charming with the loud crowds and the early hours introduced me to less busy corners where I felt more comfortable in halting and observing.
The following day I spent in the tea gardens of Happy Valley and exploring Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. Happy Valley conducts guided tours and allows a glimpse into their manufacturing unit. Even though I didn’t attend the tour, I walked into the tea garden and greeted a few women plucking tea leaves in the property.
I was eager to visit the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI) since it was always a dream. (Entry fee: Rs 40 for Zoo and HMI, Indians.) Walking pass the zoo impatiently, I made way to the HMI Museum. Here I spent hours. Studying the history of climbing the Everest, admiring the accomplishments of Tenzing Norgay, becoming aware of the gears and idolising the many mountaineers; I lost track of time.
Where I ate
My first walk through Mall Road left me confused. There are too many options to choose from here though I enjoyed my thali in Hasty Tasty (Rs. 120 with chai), Glenary’s is a popular bakery and a café. I stopped here for breakfast and though the place is charming, the service is unwilling and I found it overpriced. My breakfast was a classic; tea with toast, baked beans, eggs and chicken sausages on the side, at a cost of Rs. 312.
Thirsty from my continuous walk, I stopped by Frank Ross Café (since it came highly recommended) and paid up Rs. 50 for a dull glass of orange juice.
The true discovery of the trip was 7A Restaurant. Hidden on Dr. Zakir Hussain Road, this restaurant serves local and Chinese cuisine. Everything here is mouth-watering and I could go back just now! I started with a simple soup, followed by my introduction to momocha, which is portion of momos served in thick, tangy tomato gravy. It was wholesome and perfect. The meal concluded with a cup of tea (a recent habit I developed from the trek). My dinner was Rs. 440 for two and I left the place delighted!
Where I stayed
I stayed at two places in Darjeeling. First, at Nestle Homestay for a night each before and after my trek. My hosts were Mr. Pradhan and his lovely wife, Marmit. Their home is clean, safe and comfortable. The food was fresh and simple. Marmit Aunty and I share a common love for rice and the meals were essentially hot home food; the kind that creates glowing memories. The couple were warm and friendly without being interruptive. Two things I loved about staying here: Pradhan Uncle’s flawless directions and the light in the house. This may be an odd observation but I have always observed how the light adds to the vibe of a home. At Nestle, the light saturates the warmth. I spent hours reading a book in their balcony under the mountain sun and staring at Darjeeling from my window as the sunset. It felt like I was living in glistening bubble. My two night stay here (with meals, hot water bag and great company) cost me Rs 4332.
Alice Villa Hotel was the other place where I stayed for one night. This heritage hotel is centrally located and is quite comfortable. In all honesty, Nestle’s hospitality had spoilt me and I felt like a misfit in an impersonal hotel. The food is basic, hot and quite homely; the sleep quality is remarkably peaceful and the rooms are spacious. They also organise various tours to popular sites like Tiger Hill and adventure sports like kayaking. My one night stay here (with food and hot water bag) cost me Rs. 1289.
Good to know
I avoid wandering out late at night when travelling by myself, however in Darjeeling one night I returned to Nestle post 9 PM walking unthreatened through the empty and dark streets. Even though there were a few drunk men by local bars, everyone was happy among themselves.
Have you been to this friendly hill station?